( This was first published in ‘Speaking Tree’ section of the Times of India, 2009; https://www.speakingtree.in/article/the-revival-of-bhakti_21441 . On the 1003th Birth Anniversary of Sri Ramanujacharya, I share this article here of the incarnation of Adishesha, whose Jayanthi is celebrated during Ardra nakshatra (Thiruvathirai Nakshatra) day of Chitrai month)
A guru wondered whether his student was worthy of receiving his ashtakshara mantra that would release the human soul from earthly ills. After much deliberation, he finally disclosed it, but only after wresting a promise from him that it would not be revealed to others. The student pondered over the mantra and next day, went atop the village temple and announced the mantra to a large gathering that had collected there. The guru was furious with him and said that the worst hell awaited him. To which the student replied, ‘If this act of mine delivers thousands to heaven, I do not mind going to hell.’ Now it was the guru’s turn to be ecstatic when he witnessed his disciple’s compassion and immediately hugged him. The guru was a saint called Tirukkoṭṭiyūr Nambi and Ramanujacharya was the disciple – a great philosophical stalwart and teacher who resided on this planet for 102 years.
Ramanuja was born in 1017 A.D to Asuri Keshavacharya and Kanthimati, a renowned Vaishnava family at Sriperambudur, near Kanchipuram. Ramanuja’s birth is often compared to that of Rama to Kausalya and Krishna to Devaki, who were avataras or incarnations who came to Earth to drive out ignorance. He is believed to be Adisesha’s incarnation and an embodiment of Lakshmana. Yamunacharya, a great scholar of those times is said to have told Ramanuja’s father that this child would be high in intellect and hence should be named after Lakshmana. At sixteen he was married to a comely Rakshakambal.
Ramanujacharya had a chequered life, which is evident when his own teacher, Yadavaprakash felt threatened, by the clarity and extent of his knowledge, and decided to kill him. However, due to divine grace Ramanujacharya escaped the clutches of death. Ramanujacharya was against any caste rules as is apparent by the fact that he took an illiterate but highly knowledgeable saint called known as Kanchipurna as his teacher. One night Ramanuja invited Kanchipurna to his house. After serving him food, Ramanuja offered to wash his feet. Kanchipurna was very embarrassed, as Ramanuja was a Brahmin. Ramanuja is said to have been very upset and he declared that one who has devotion and Bhakti towards the Lord was beyond any social order. Soon after, Ramanujacharya gave up the life of a householder and proceeded towards Srirangam.
Ramanuja expounded the Vishishtha Advaita philosophy (qualified non-dualism). It talks about a personal God who is one and only one (non-dual), but one with unique (vishishtha) attributes. It says that the Supreme Being is ‘soul of all souls’. He explained that there were three factors of interplay (i) God or Brahman (ii) Ourselves (jivatmas) (iii) the world (nature or prakriti). He further explained that God manifests Himself in two modes; Chit (sentient or living beings) and Achit (non-sentient or without consciousness). God (Brahman or Sriman Narayana) along with these two modes formed the Tattva Traya or the three fold doctrine of Vishishtha Advaita philosophy. The philosophy established an organic relationship of oneness of the universe and individual souls along with the Brahman. It elucidates that individual selves are sparks of the divine and that this world is no illusion. This philosophy is an integral part of Sri Vaishnavism, which says that Sriman Narayana is Paratattva (the Supreme Truth). He is the abode of all life and is the internal controller or ‘antaryamin’. One of the most important doctrines is that He is easily approachable and responds to his devotee’s love or Bhakti. This philosophy is theistic and says Brahman is the union of Vishnu and Lakshmi (Sri), the father and mother elements respectively.
Ramanuja was deeply influenced by the 12 Alwars or Vaishnavite poet saints, who were immersed in bhakti or devotion towards Lord Narayana. Through Bhakti, Ramanujacharya advocated ‘Saranagati’ or total surrender to God. Indeed, Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Geeta advises Arjuna to rise above the lesser dharmas or duties which keep the soul bound to matter. He urges Arjuna to ‘surrender all unto me and I shall free you from fears, bondage and sorrows’. This act of surrender is termed as Saranagati, which forms the nucleus of the vishistha advaita philosophy and is referred to as the prapatti yoga. In deference to the saint Yamunacharya’s wishes, Ramanujacharya wrote the Sribhashya (a commentary on the Brahma sutras), Gita Bhashya, Saranagati Gadyam amongst many other works. This great teacher travelled the length and breadth of India, and standardised the liturgy at many temples including the Sri Venkateshwara temple at Tirupati, and the Cheluvanarayana temple at Melkote, Karnataka, where he spent a major part of his life. Having restored Bhakti back to the country, Sri Ramanujacharya gave up his mortal body in 1137 A.D.